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It’s not all bricks and sticks; revitalizing neighborhoods means more than just new buildings

October 30, 2018

On the South Side of Chicago, where property values exceeding $600,000 would have been unheard of a decade ago and the population is growing after a 50-year exodus, there’s something happening in the Woodlawn neighborhood that’s getting a lot of attention as a model for other neighborhood revitalization efforts.

Since 2008, our nonprofit has developed more than 800 mixed-income apartments and homes, nearly 100,000 square feet of new commercial space and an award-winning community center. We also stabilized once-troubled blocks across the community by reclaiming and renovating more than 60 abandoned properties. And we did all this with zero displacement of the former Grove Parc Plaza residents as they relocated to new or renovated buildings and continue to call this Woodlawn neighborhood home.

We have shared in and marveled at Woodlawn’s evolution over the last 10 years from a high-crime neighborhood starved for new investment to a neighborhood that will soon welcome the Obama Presidential Center and Tiger Woods golf course in Jackson Park, a new Jewel-Osco grocery store on South Cottage Grove Avenue and additions to the University of Chicago’s booming South Campus.

But Woodlawn’s resurgence is driven by much more than our investments over the past decade.  What started with our acquisition of a failing Section 8 property in the heart of the community  was quickly bolstered by a $30.5 million HUD Choice Neighborhoods Initiative Grant, key public and private partnerships, renewed neighbor-to-neighbor engagement and the many community benefits this culturally-rich  neighborhood has to offer.

That’s why the good news keeps coming – home sales in East Woodlawn now exceed $600,000 and in West Woodlawn, the Renew Woodlawn public-private partnership has rehabbed and sold 36 vacant or abandoned single-family homes and two-flats at affordable prices to new owner-occupants, with more coming.

Along the way, we learned much about what makes community-wide revitalization efforts successful and it’s worth sharing some of those lessons with other promising revitalization efforts.

  • Create a Vision – After purchasing the 504-unit former Grove Parc Apartments in late 2008, we immediately set about establishing a new master plan for the three-block stretch of failed housing with new mixed-income buildings, retail spaces and an inviting community center. The plan for a newly created Woodlawn Park inspired a fresh dialogue with community residents, institutions and potential investors about Woodlawn’s potential as a community.
  • Build on Community Input – Tailor your strategy to building upon the neighborhood’s priorities and existing strengths that you’ve determined through surveys or community meetings. Woodlawn Park was itself built upon an existing, community-driven “Quality of Life Plan” drawn up just a few years earlier by a broad community coalition.
  • Leverage Existing Assets – Take stock of existing assets in the area –recreational facilities, natural resources, access to public transit, cultural amenities – and incorporate them into your narrative of why this project will be successful.  Woodlawn sits next to Lake Michigan and the University of Chicago and is blessed with beautiful parks, excellent transit access and classic Chicago homes. In short, it’s a residential neighborhood rich with amenities, so our plan is built around housing that preserves affordability and creates opportunities to attract new, higher-income residents.
  • Commercial Development Follows Residential – From the beginning, residents told us that a new grocery store was their top priority, second perhaps only to lower crime rates, but landing a grocer is no small task. But, as Woodlawn’s housing stock has improved and its population rises, retailers are showing renewed interest. Last year we secured a commitment by the Jewel-Osco grocery chain to build a 50,000 square foot supermarket that is currently under construction next to our development.
  • Partnerships Matter A Lot – The deep support from the City of Chicago, HUD and the State of Illinois, was key to financing for our housing phases in Woodlawn and elsewhere, but just as important was early engagement with community and resident groups, institutions and potential investors. And don’t overlook the smaller ones.  Some of our most important partners are neighborhood organizations such as the Network of Woodlawn; the Woodlawn Public Safety Alliance, which works at the block level on crime issues; and block clubs, which have reclaimed vacant lots as community gardens. They will be your closest allies, especially when controversies arise or you’re seeking new funding sources
  • Don’t Forget About Human Capital – It’s not all bricks and sticks. Identify the human services, family services and workforce programs you can bring into the mix to help not only house people, but help them succeed. Alongside the housing, we opened the Woodlawn Resource Center, where community residents can receive everything from case management to skills-specific job training. It also serves as an informal town center for community meetings, art shows and more. The center provides POAH with a home a base from which to connect residents to jobs to make sure that the community’s growth benefits the people who live there first and foremost.

This is indeed an exciting time to work in Woodlawn. The University of Chicago and local community groups, once at odds over issues of encroachment, are working more collaboratively than they have in decades. A once-ignored CTA “L” transit station in the heart of the community will undergo a physical transformation that should drive further investment.

But this time is equally exciting because with the right players assembled – public, private, community, philanthropic – Woodlawn presents a shining example of how community revitalization and inclusion can go hand in hand.  As the work here continues, other neighborhood revitalization developers may benefit from what we’ve learned.

Preservation of Affordable Housing (POAH) is a nonprofit developer, owner and operator of affordable rental apartments in several urban communities in the Chicago area. Since starting to work in the Chicago area in 2008, POAH has built and renovated nearly 1,500 units of housing in mixed-income buildings, with no displacement of longtime residents. 

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